Why a Wonder: California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains (or “The Eastside” to locals) boasts some of the Sierra’s most rugged and awe-inspiring terrain.
Autumn in the Eastern Sierras is known for dishing up the most unreal landscapes you can imagine. Unexpected pops of color leaping out from the incredible grandeur of these mountains make fall color photography a uniquely gorgeous experience. If you catch some early snowfall, the contrasting colors will blow your mind. Challenging? You bet. But it’s worth it. If you’re lucky, you might even be treated to some early snowfall, like I did here at North Lake. Breathtaking with fall color!
Where: Geographically, this region spans from Lone Pine, CA at the south end, to roughly the Nevada state line in the north. It’s too much territory to cover in one post, so for today we’ll focus on areas local to Bishop, CA. Situated on US 395 in the Owens Valley, the town of Bishop is a handy home base, with food, fuel, lodging and services within easy reach. It’s a 4 hour drive from Reno International Airport, a 7 hour drive from San Jose International Airport in the Bay Area and a 5.5 hour drive from Sacramento’s International Airport.
When: Fall colors in the Eastern Sierras can begin turning as early as the last week in September in the upper elevations (10,000 ft range) - and continue to descend at a rate of approx. 500 ft (152 meters) per week throughout October as it drops into the lower elevations.
Photo Locations: Here are a few starting points that you can get to within about 30 minutes from Bishop:
High elevations (10,000 foot range): Sabrina Lake, South Lake, North Lake. High alpine lakes show off first, with lovely colorful reflections for beautiful abstracts.
Mid elevation (7000-8000 foot range): South Lake Road, North Lake Road, Middle Fork Bishop Creek.
Lower elevations (4000-6500 foot range): Bishop area, lower South Bishop Creek, Owens Valley ranch lands.
Photography: In big, epic country like this most photographers will think in terms of wide-view types of shots. I create those, for sure - but I don’t stop there. My own approach also includes creating a range of images to tell a more sweeping story.
On a recent trip, I used my Fujifilm GFX 100s and Fujifilm X-T5 with lenses that not only offered up the wider view - but also mid-range, telephoto and macro perspectives.. After all, my experience is personal; I want my visual “storybook” to likewise be as personal, varied and unique as possible.
One way to think about this is to approach shots the way a film does.
Here, a morning “establishing shot” of Lake Sabrina sets the place and time. It’s your wider view that establishes time and place. For this I used my Fujifilm GFX/GF 32-64mm combo.
Check out different times of day too, for alternate angles on light and story.
Then, find the smaller, intimate narratives within a wider frame. Chunk it all down and look for patterns, curves, color play on the water, interesting gestures, movements - and people! Tell a multi-faceted story of your experience - with close up, mid-range, telephoto and macro frames.
I do keep ND/GND filters on hand to make long exposure abstracts in streams and creeks - and often like to fill the frame with intimate detail. Circular polarizers are handy too, for darkening blue skies and cutting glare in certain situations.
TIP: Keep in mind that if you do use an ND filter on an aspen-lined creek shot like I did here on the Middle Fork of Bishop Creek, also take one without any filter (to stop the quaking leaves). Be sure and use a tripod for those so they line up correctly! You’ll likely want to combine the two later on in Photoshop.
I love reflections. The slightly “ruffled” texture that a breath of breeze creates on the water lends a unique character to these types of abstract shots. Consequently, I rarely ever use a filter for them.
TIP: When photographing in forests, use vertical lines and shadows to give it form, add drama and anchor the scene.
Also, get off the beaten path and try late afternoon backlighting for a “magical forest” feel.
Shoot all day! Most landscape photographers think in terms of only mornings and evenings for the best light. But other times of day hold wonders too. When light strikes leaves from the side, above or behind - it makes the colors really pop, like they did in this photo from North Lake at 1:30pm.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with intentional camera movement, for a whole other impactful and surprising approach to fall color. I typically create mine hand-held and aim for an exposure of about ⅓ to ⅕ of a second.
You’ll drive quite a bit in the Eastern Sierras, so keep your camera ready and be prepared! There are photo opportunities everywhere, including along North Lake Road, where I took the photograph above.
Composition tip: pay attention to curves and lines that draw the viewer’s eye into your image.
Want more on how to photograph fall color and tell visual stories while you do it? Check out my KelbyOne class “The Complete Guide to Photographing Fall Color” filmed right here in the glorious Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
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Do you have your own photos of this Photo Wonder? Feel free to share them in the comments below!
© Karen Hutton
This post sponsored by Breakthrough Filters.